#BOARD23 - Turning the spotlight on animal research at the university

On 15 June, the European Animal Research Association (EARA) is organising the third edition of the -Be Open About Animal Research Day- (#BOARD23). This global 24-hour campaign celebrates communicating about animal research. The University of Luxembourg participates in #BOARD23 through a series of articles highlighting the latest advances in animal care, recent research results and the people behind the science.

In this interview, Jennifer Behm , designated veterinarian at the university, talks about her job, her passion for both the animals she cares for and the research projects she contributes to, and the importance of openly communicating about animal research.

Could you say a few words about yourself?
My name is Jennifer and I work full time as the designated vet at the University of Luxembourg. I studied veterinary medicine in Berlin and previously worked in the private sector, in a vet clinic and at the Max Planck Institute, before moving to Luxembourg and joining the university in May 2020.

I am part of a dedicated team of around 15 people, from caretakers to animal technicians and platform managers, who cares for the two species housed at the university: mice and zebrafish. These animal models are part of several research projects on human diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. Our team makes sure that animal research at the university is conducted in the best possible way, in compliance with the strict European and national guidelines.

How did you get started in this field?
During my studies, I worked for a company offering animal research services to scientists. I had the opportunity to work with different species and to learn a lot. I especially discovered the diversity of the scientific topics relying on animal models and this is when my interest in animal research started. The fact that I could see the results at the end of these studies - when a treatment finally goes to the market and can help patients - was also very rewarding.

Then, I worked for six years at the Max Planck Institute as an animal welfare officer and a deputy animal house leader. This is where I gradually learned all the aspects of the job, from animal care to running a large facility with high-tech equipment and training staff.

What does your job at the university entail?
Being the designated veterinarian, I am involved in all research projects including animal models at the university, from the planning phase to the very end. My role is to provide advice on the best ways to conduct experiments: how to handle the animals or which anaesthetics to use for example, always aiming for the highest standards of animal welfare. Each project is assessed to ensure that it follows the 3Rs (Replace, Reduce, Refine), the guiding principles underpinning the use of animals in scientific research.

Once a protocol has been defined, I am also in charge of training research staff. The university provides, together with the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the standard mandatory sessions on animal experimentation and welfare, called Function A and Function B, as well as specific practical training when needed for a new procedure. On top of these courses, I organise monthly webinars as continuing education is key in this field. This way, we can all stay up to date, learn the latest best practices and get ready to implement them at the university.

Finally, I do regular check-ups in the animal facilities. In addition to daily checks by animal caretakers, I inspect each room at least once a week to make sure that everything is running smoothly, that the animals are doing well and to give advice when things can be improved.

What do you like about this job?
I like the constant challenge. New ideas for improving the animal welfare are always popping up in this fast-changing field and you have to keep up. I also enjoy that it involves a lot of interactions with the different people working on these research projects. I am always discussing with scientists, caretakers and members of the ethics committee. In the end, my role is to be beneficial to all the parties involved: make high-quality research happen and take good care of the animals.

As I said at the beginning, the diversity of disciplines is also very interesting. To give you an idea of the range of scientific topics at the university, we have around 30 ongoing projects focusing for instance on Alzheimer-s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, as well as rare childhood diseases and colorectal cancer.

On a more personal note, I was diagnosed with breast cancer a while ago and, at that time, I was very grateful that thanks to animal research we have developed cancer treatments that were not available 10 years ago. I am happy to be part of part of projects that are contributing to medical progress and mean that, like me, future patients will get to receive a treatment.

Why be part of this EARA campaign?
Because it is extremely important to speak about this topic, both internally and externally. Within the university, we have an open-door policy so that researchers, technicians and caretakers can come to me and ask for advice. By fostering this culture of openness, you can share expertise and encourage people to learn and do better. I think we are doing a pretty good job in that domain at the university.

When it comes to communicating with the general public, I really believe that we shouldn-t hide what we do but rather showcase all the good practices we implement and the results they lead to. I am personally proud of the structure in place at the university, the state-of-the-art facilities that we keep improving with new equipment and the team of dedicated people who operate them.

It is essential to say that we are passionate about research and about the animals. We really care for the mice and zebrafish. None of us see them as items to be used and discarded. Performing procedures on living animals is never easy. In addition to this ethical aspect, animal research is costly and time-consuming. We do it after careful consideration and under strict guidelines because it is still crucial for medicine. To convey all that - the importance and complexity of what we do - I think there is nothing more efficient than somebody talking about the job they know and love, like I did today.

To know more about animal research at the University of Luxembourg:

To know more about the EARA and the -Be Open About Animal Research Day-:

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